Podcast 87: How kids learn to say “Trick or Treat!”

October 26th, 2016

Jean Berko Gleason explains how kids learn to say “Trick or Treat!” —and how it helps them stride down the road to adulthood. That’s the story in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

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This week, Marc Abrahams discusses “Trick or treat!” with Boston University psychology professor emerita Jean Berko Gleason. Early in her career, Gleason gained fame for inventing the WUG Test. The WUG test revealed that young children have impressively subtle abilities to learn — and use — new bits of language. The trick-or-treat study she did years later is only slightly less famous among psychologists.

Here’s a photo of Professor Gleason wearing a costume:


The mysterious John Schedler or the shadowy Bruce Petschek perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, on the CBS Play.it web site, and on iTunes and Spotify).

A feisty embuggerance

October 25th, 2016

christomalisStephen Chrisomalis [pictured here] writes, in the Glossographia blog, about feisty embuggerance:

When I grade my students’ paper proposals, I make a point of doing a brief Google Scholar search for each student’s proposal, which a) helps me evaluate how thorough they have been; b) helps me help them find additional material (I then give them the sources I found, but also the keywords I used to find them). One of my students in my introductory linguistic anthropology course this term is doing a paper on linguistic aspects of laughter and humor. During my search, I encountered the following citation (direct from Google Scholar to you):

Embuggerance, E., and H. Feisty. 2008. The linguistics of laughter. English Today 1, no. 04: 47-47.

After I stopped laughing, I set to figuring out what was going on….

(Thanks to investigator Scott Langill for bringing this to our attention.)

Further prying insights on lying

October 24th, 2016

Ig Nobel Prize winner Dan Ariely and colleagues have a new study about lying: “The Brain Adapts to Dishonesty,” by Neil Garrett, Stephanie Lazzaro, Dan Ariely, and Tali Sharot, published in Nature Neuroscience.

A news report in Scientific American sums it up: “The team’s findings, published today in Nature Neuroscience, confirm in a laboratory setting that dishonesty grows with repetition. The researchers also used brain imaging to reveal a neural mechanism that may help explain why.”

Co-author Garrett describes what the team did and found, in this video:


Dan Ariely and three other colleagues were awarded the 2008 Ig Nobel Prize for medicine, for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine. (Their study about that: “Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy,” Rebecca L. Waber; Baba Shiv; Ziv Carmon; Dan Ariely, Journal of the American Medical Association, March 5, 2008; 299: 1016-1017.)

BONUS: Two of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize winners did research on related topics:



How to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’ – part 3: Grunting

October 24th, 2016

Our previous Improbable article in this series examined the use of placebos – we now look at grunting. Though several sports tolerate (or even encourage) grunting as part of normal play, some have complained that it can be used as a deliberate and unfair distraction of one’s opponent(s). With regard to tennis for example, see: A Preliminary Investigation Regarding the Effect of Tennis Grunting: Does White Noise During a Tennis Shot Have a Negative Impact on Shot Perception? by S Sinnett, A Kingstone – PloS one, 2010.

“There is a growing chorus of critics who complain that many of the top-ranked professional tennis players who grunt when they hit the ball gain an unfair advantage because the sound of the grunt interferes with their opponent’s game.


Our data suggest that a grunting player has a competitive edge on the professional tennis tour.“

Although the global tennis authorities don’t (as far as Improbable can ascertain) have any specific rules relating to the distractions of grunting, some local associations have crafted their own code of conduct. See for example rule 36 of the Newbury and District Lawn Tennis Association, UK [.doc format]

“36. Grunting. A player should avoid grunting and making other loud noises. Grunting and other loud noises may bother not only opponents but also players on adjacent courts. In an extreme case, an opponent or a player on an adjacent court may seek the assistance of the Referee or a Roving Umpire. The Referee or official may treat grunting and the making of loud noises as a hindrance. Depending upon the circumstance, this could result in a let or loss of point. “

This concludes our short Improbable series on how to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’.

Bonus assignment [optional]: In which (if any) of the following competitive sports/games should grunting be banned? [give reasons].

•Pole vault •Curling• Synchronized swimming •Chess •Shooting •Golf •Tiddlywinks •Dressage

“Nuts!” (of/and goats, and dogs, etc., and people), the film

October 23rd, 2016

220px-dr-_john_r-_brinkley“In 1922, Brinkley traveled to Los Angeles at the invitation of Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, who challenged Brinkley to transplant goat testicles into one of his editors.”

That’s just one nugget from the Wikipedia biography of “Doctor” John R. Brinkley, who lived a colorful life. Implanting goat testicles into strangers was not the half, or even fifth of it. Well, maybe the fifth of it.

A new documentary film called “Nuts!” chews over the life and claims and accomplishments of the not-so-good non-doctor. Here’s the trailer for the film:


(Thanks to Erwin Kompanje for bringing this to our attention.)